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Tag Archives: populism

At the heart of all the fretting over populism there is a dispute about the essential meaning of citizenship. Populism is often defended by reference to its root, populus, and presented as ordinary people taking control. The reality is that the last thing on earth that a supporter of populism wants is control over their own or the affairs of the republic; they are passive citizens. When thinking people complain of the lies and simplicities which fuel populist campaigns, they fail to appreciate that this content is not directed at them. They are irrelevant onlookers to a play for the support of fellow citizens who have a fundamentally different outlook. Crucially it is journalists who ensure that content reaches its intended target.

You see, one view of citizenship pays little or no heed to meaningful participation – to deliberation – and cedes thinking to an elite. Because adherents complain about elites (variously labelled the establishment, the government or the political class) a fake anti-authoritarian image can appear; in truth it is more like petulant but dependent children complaining about their parents. It is a view that reduces citizenship to a desire to be well managed or led by a patriarchy which the dependent, passive citizen hopes will be benign.* There is competition then for the support of these citizens.

Competition for the votes of such citizens is characterised by political communication which plays down, ignores or lies about risk. The most recent example is Brexit. Passive citizens were told that they could leave the EU without fear of adverse consequences. They could have been asked to assess the risks and decide on balance what would be best but that would not have served them. It would have made them unhappy and prompted cries for “leadership”.

The first Syriza election win in Greece was another example. Frightened citizens were told that everything would be fine, that they could be delivered unproblematically from austerity. It turns out that a whole swathe of the coalition that was Syriza was fully aware of the risks, were talking among themselves about the Drachma and an isolated fresh start but they stayed quiet rather than perturb the simplicity.

In Ireland we are burdened with the same authoritarian nonsense. When our entirely predictable property crash finally arrived, citizens who would prefer to be untroubled by risk assessment were offered a wide choice of potential parents. All said that there was an easy way out of austerity, that a country in desperate need of loans to pay welfare and state salaries could refuse to accept the conditions imposed by its one remaining lender and that there would be no adverse consequence.

It is difficult to imagine a political controversy which does not involve the consideration of consequences, of advantages for some and disadvantages for others. However, the idea that a controversy over matters as large as the above could be presented by anyone as having small or few consequences is not merely absurd. It is an authoritarian gambit.

The citizen who doesn’t want to be troubled with participation, argument, evaluation, judgement is a willing target for the authoritarian who will reassure, will relieve them of meaningful citizenship by offering leadership. This is the authoritarian who tells them not to worry, that nothing bad will happen, who talks in terms of being in touch with the people, who will likely even try to identify as anti-establishment. Crucially, complex argument and possible consequences will be dismissed as “scaremongering”, while expertise will be spurned as “establishment”.

Familiar? Of course it’s familiar; it’s the parody of political discourse that has become not merely acceptable but normal. If you are not a citizen in need of a leader but one who wants to participate in the affairs of the republic, wants to have all the information and arguments in order to discuss what matters before coming to your decision, you may wonder how the repeated lies and simplicities could gather supporters. You may even have a haughty disdain for your fellow citizens, questioning their intelligence. The reality is that many citizens seek soothing codology because they prefer a quiet life. Moreover, the populist leader knows this and has no intention of wasting time in addressing the republican citizen. Indeed, there is no need to do so because the number of passive citizens is sufficient for success at the polls and may constitute a majority, even a large majority

There’s nothing new about concern over citizen passivity. It has a track record from before J.S. Mill’s fear of the herd, through the Frankfurt Marxists, on even into music with Roger Waters *, inspired by Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and on it goes. In short, it’s a staple in theorising about democracy and the nature of citizenship. **

Finally, where do journalists come into this? Well, they have a problem and a decision to make: they cannot at the same time serve the republican citizen while holding the passive citizen’s attention or serve the passive citizen without dismissing the needs of the republican citizen. Generally they stay out of trouble by covering everything in a fair, objective, impartial way and that’s one reason why public discourse and republican participation are threatened.


* A note to leftists who might be tempted to lead populism: The citizen who wants to be patronised is working class only in the way that the term is used by pollsters.



I was talking to a T.D.* recently, a leftist one. He said that his basic function was to serve his constituents and that if he is re-elected to the Dáil, it will justify his political decisions. I disagreed, saying that his was a perfect statement of populism. The function of a leftist is neither to schmooze nor to patronise but to argue honestly and plausibly.

Now, Ireland is a society in which the overwhelming majority is comprised of liberals, conservatives and believers in the infantile notion that the “political class” is the ruling class. In this society honest and plausible argument would seem the road to electoral failure because it means opposing and possibly offending that overwhelming majority. That is why leftist parties seeking electoral success employ researchers who i) try to keep policy and statements in line with those of a majority or ii) try to be both vague and appealing to those receptive to facile slogans.

It’s a real dilemma: how to get elected while opposing (trying to persuade) the majority? The situation is made worse by a realisation that slogans and implausibility will drive away the thoughtful voter.

The good news in Ireland is that the leftist doesn’t have to appeal to the majority or convince a majority in order to win. In Ireland we have PR-STV ** and election can be achieved by way of a minority vote. This offers the freedom to argue, to oppose consensus, to offend, to break icons but it’s far from an easy option. It’s difficult and lonely to decide to be unpopular. It is however the only way for a leftist to win on a leftist platform in Ireland.

There are of course implications for participation in coalition government but that’s work for another day.
* Teachta Dála, a member of the Irish parliament.
** Proportional Representation by means of the Single Transferable Vote.

Take a look at this from

It is a longish piece but bear with it or at least scan through to its salient features. If it is remotely accurate, it predicts a single digit number of Labour seats and extraordinarily right wing parliaments for Ireland.

Attention focusses on the belief that, while Labour might hold on to a vote in the region of its traditional 10% support, it is reaching a tipping point at which marginal seats fall rather than are won. This will be a cause for celebration among Labour’s rivals both left and right. The problem for those celebrating on the left is that there is no leftward movement in voter support. The belief on the left (a very old belief) is that as soon as Labour is destroyed and/or joins a unified left, Ireland will magically have something like a 50/50 left/right electoral split. There’s not the tiniest shred of evidence to support this hope.

Here’s a different interpretation of what’s happening and it too is not based on anything that could be remotely described as quantitative research. Let’s leave gullible victims of populism aside and consider the citizen who is open to argument. The citizen is listening and knows the precarious state that we are in. The citizen can choose to support the left or the right. There are arguments presented from left and right. Neither set of arguments seeks to change the structure of inequality. The right argues that cuts are necessary to “restore the economy”. The left argues that cuts are unnecessary and will further damage the economy. I’ve always found liberal economics both daft and cruel so I won’t address the right wing argument here. It is the left wing arguments that concern me deeply. They pretend that if bond holders and banks were not bailed out, there’d be no shortfall between state income and expenditure. They talk about making the rich pay but exclude the majority of the rich, i.e. emphasis is on the top 1%, possibly the top 10% but under no circumstances will the top 20% be targeted. The left’s position is to try to convince citizens that life can return to “normal” as before the crisis. Yes, it’s a conservative argument but it is also implausible.

It is hardly surprising that a thoughtful citizen would turn right because the argument offered there seems less implausible.